Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sung theology meme

I spend a lot of time thinking about hymnody. Selecting a hymn for my community to sing can happen for so many reasons...because it fits with the texts; because it fits the liturgical season; because it fits our particular context at the moment; because they love it or because it will challenge them; because it's theologically sound; because we need to remember that "me and Jesus" isn't the whole story, or because we need to remember that Jesus loves each of us intimately; because it has a tune that will live in their hearts and embed the text in their consciousness; because it prays; because it praises; because it laments; because it thanks; because it celebrates the gifts all around and within us.

It drives me nuts when the conversation is reduced to "I like (or, often, don't like) that one," or "Hey, that was catchy." That's too impoverished, too auto-pilot. It misses out on the richness.

And so, I got to thinking. If I could choose ten hymns that together have truly shaped me, that speak to me, that comprise my theology, what would they be? It's really a tough exercise for me, because there are so many wonderful candidates in the history of Christian music. But I think I have a fair representation here of texts and tunes that will always live in me, and the reasons for each.

1. Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service (BEACH SPRING)

Lord, whose love in humble service
bore the weight of human need;
who, upon the cross, forsaken,
worked your mercy's perfect deed.
We, your servants, bring the worship
not of voice alone, but heart:
consecrating to your purpose
every gift that you impart.

When I was in the National Lutheran Choir, I sang the founder's (Larry Fleming's) choral arrangement of this one. Its musical simplicity and textual richness got to me, and provided one of the first prods for me to go to the seminary and study church music. Now, about 12 years later, I see the text (of which I quoted only the first of four stanzas, above) as a really wonderful depiction of that place where worship and mission intersect, to the enlivening of both.

2. For the Fruit of All Creation (AR HYD Y NOS)

Songbird posted about this one recently. Here's a men's choir singing an alternate text to the tune, in the original Welsh. I love the "For the Fruit" text (available at Songbird's blog) because, just lately, I've been trying to see every day through a lens of gratitude, and this text is just stuffed with it. This is the very last line:

Most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.

That line ALONE might be theology and prayer enough for me. Often, when my congregation sings it, we do a verse a cappella. The bread-and-butter beauty of the sound of all those voices, many singing alto, tenor and bass, seems a perfect living out of the text being sung--we give thanks with the very air in our bodies. POWERFUL stuff.

3. Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises (HALELUYA PELO TSA RONA)

I love the fresh joy that's inherent in so much African choral music. It feels immediate, as if God were close enough to touch. We had this at our wedding. And at our choir wedding shower. And at an impromptu party thrown by my church choir last week for our anniversary. They surprised us by writing special words to it for each occasion...and singing the wedding version AFTER the "regular" version we used as the congregational closing hymn:

Hallelujah! You just got married! And we're singing at your wedding!
Hallelujah! We sing a blessing: may your union last forever!

The only version I could find on Youtube comes in two parts:

4. Children of the Heavenly Father ( TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA)

Children of the heavenly Father
safely in his bosom gather.
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
such a refuge ne'er was given.

OK, admittedly, this one is sentiment and safety to me. It's my dear grandma singing it as I sat next to her at age 3 and watched her dear chin wobble. It's my Scandinavian heritage. It's a "heart hymn" for lots of Lutherans, who tend to sing it well and lustily, which is a pleasure in and of itself. It's the simple confidence of trust in a parent God who loves each of us kids in a way uniquely suited to that kid.

5. Silent Night (STILLE NACHT)

It's got a great back story. It's got a beautiful, simple melody that needs no adornment to really WORK. It's popular enough that people are able to sing at least the first verse (and sometimes two or three) without reading along...and yet, it doesn't grate on me by Christmas Eve like so many other Christmas carols that are piped in to every single place you go in December. It's still widely enough used that, when doing it on Christmas Eve, I have a sense that churches all over the world are doing the same--that we're all part of something so much larger than our own congregations: the great cloud of witnesses, all together. Most importantly, it uses imagery beautifully to depict the Light that Shines in the Darkness and Is Not Overcome.

6. O Sacred Head, Now Wounded ( HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN)

Text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. Tune by Hans Leo Hassler. Harmonization by J.S. Bach. Quality and timeless beauty all the way along the line. And there's something about the text of this verse:

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend
for this, thy dying sorrow--thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be
Lord, let me never ever outlive my love for thee.

Love and commitment to the very end, coming from and going back to God. Powerful. Profound.

7. Will You Come and Follow Me (THE SUMMONS)

Sometimes a song can change your life. This is mine.

Let's go back eleven years. I was in seminary, newly in love, deeply in the closet, and terribly conflicted. As a music student, I was drafted to sing in the choir for a campus hymn festival, and heard this hymn for the first time. It's about vocation, which is personal under any circumstance; I was seriously doubting mine at the time, not believing that God could possibly be inviting me into both vocational church work and a love that many of God's people wouldn't understand.

I brought all that angst into the chapel with me like a backpack full of bricks. When we got to stanza 4, I wasn't singing any longer. I was broken open, at peace for the first time in a year, weeping openly. Because God spoke to me in that lyric, in that moment:

Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the love you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you, and you in me?

God knows all of our dark places...and just lights 'em up. :-)

A side note: the lilting melody is Scottish traditional, and it beautifully supports a well-crafted text. Folk music of all stripes is often really good at this--easy to learn and remember, but carrying the character of its culture into the interpretation of the music.

8. O Day Full of Grace ( DEN SIGNEDE DAG)

It's an anthem of Lutheran theology. Saved by grace through faith. Simul justus et peccator. Not to mention the whole Christian story and continuing mission compacted into five stanzas. And a side note...this arrangement was created by F. Melius Christiansen, founder of the St. Olaf Choir and catalyst for the whole midwestern Lutheran choral movement. He'd love that a high school choir is singing this, and so well. Crank this sucker up!

9. Shepherd Me, O God (SHEPHERD ME)

This setting of Psalm 23 has, simply, a beautifully crafted melody line that is perfectly married to its text. The tonality captures both the solitude and the presence; both the danger and the trust. I couldn't find an online recording that does it justice.

Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants
beyond my fears
from death into life.

10. I Want Jesus to Walk with Me (SOJOURNER)

Because I DO. Because African-American spirituals can be so deeply evocative of lifelong pain pierced by a clear, strong ray of faith. Because they can be sung with equal integrity whether they're done with congregational simplicity or soloistic virtuosity. Because this is a haunting melody that carries the prayer for God's presence along with me wherever I go...and still doesn't become an earworm. Because it's beautifully simple, and still richly textured. Like the presence of God.

Now, all that having been said, there are so many more that I value...for all the reasons listed in my opening paragraph and for some that are too deep for words.

So, TAG, Gentle Reader--PLEASE join in! I'm really interested to know what yours would be and why. What group of hymns tells the story of your faith?

Oh, and
If you'd be willing to link to this post, it'd be fun to see the conversation that's generated!


Magdalene6127 said...

Ooooohhh What a luscious, delicious, rich post! I want to play, I want to play! It's gonna take some time, though. Thanks Choralgirl!

Have I mentioned that I think you should be ordained NOW?

Peg said...

I have a really special place in my heart for "O Day Full of Grace," too, because I went to St. Olaf and sung the F. Melius version with the choirs there. Boy, once you do that, you'll never forget it. It drove me crazy that the green hymnbook changed the words. SO GLAD that the new red hymnbook has changed them back.

"Fairest Lord Jesus" is the hymn we use to close the St. Olaf College Christmas festival each year (also with a kick-ass arrangement), and so is also a sentimental favorite.

"Praise to the Lord (The Almighty, the King of Creation)" is the hymn I remember particularly growing up--I know all four verses by heart. That was sung at my wedding.

Diane said...

what great picks! I have been thinking about this for awhile: so, though it might take some time, I'm planning to do this too...

Border Explorer said...

Very, very creative meme!

Shalom said...

Whoo hoo! Great meme - and a chance to take a break from the sermon! All good things. :) I'll start working on mine.

mompriest said...


ok, I'm in for a play....but it will take me awhile too, busy few days ahead...

Melissa said...

Ok. Growing up Pentecostal pretty much left hymnals out of the picture in favor of repetitive songs by church members. The upside, is that many hymns I encounter now are brand new experiences.

Anyway, there is one song I can think of that provided for me a true comfort. Written, I think, in the midst of the "Jesus Movement", everything about it is plain, but the words granted me a peace that sustained me:

Life is easy when you're up on the mountain
And you've got peace of mind like you've never known.
But then things change and you're down in the valley.
Don't lose faith for you're never alone.

For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley.
When things go wrong, He'll make it right.
And the God of the good times
is still God in the bad times.
The God of the day is still God in the night.

You talk of faith when you're up on the mountain.
Oh but the talk comes easy when life's at its best.
But it's down in the valley of trials and temptation
That's when faith is really put to the test.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

What a beautiful post. It's true we often sing them rotely and forget the message. My favorite hymn has always been "Be Thou my Vision" But also "Come THou fount of Every Blessing". The words - prone to wander Lord I feel it - is almost too much for me to sing sometimes.

Deb said...

I will try to do this... when I have a brain. I promise!


FranIAm said...

I am so late to this, but I was waiting until I had the appropriate time and attention to pay for it.

This is hard but so deeply good to think about. So much so that I woke up having dreamed of hymns!

Here I go:

How Can I Keep From Singing?
For me, this is it. My faith in a song.

One of yours is one of mine...
Shepherd Me O Lord- I so love that song.

Amazing Grace- sorry, it just works for me and is tied to my return to church.

The more contemporary litany of the saints - it can be found in this post.

Hosea- Come back to me, with your whole heart, don't let fear, keep us apart... Long have I have I waited for you coming home to me and living deeply our new life. Aaaah...

O Holy Night - to me, most moving Christmas song ever

Resucito - Spanish/English hymn

Shubert's Ave Maria

Ubi Carits by Taize

Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Thanks for this Choral Girl!!